A weekly series examining the human experience in passengers’ stories as delivered from a therapist moon-lighting as a rideshare driver.
Everybody who gets in my car carries a signature tone. Sometimes the weight of their tone is heavier than words can lift. I picked up a man outside the hospital, and fear was breathing through his pores. The man looked to be about 40, but there was an old man coming out of his face. He was ornery, irritable, the kind of passenger that’s going to give you a bad rating just for being in his life for 20 minutes.
I could feel his death announcing itself through his face. I asked him how he was doing. He answered in a stream of complaints that evoked his pain but didn’t name it. He said was having a bad day, not getting the answers he was hoping for from the doctors. To make matters worse, the SXSW Festival was in full swing, so the fare prices were elevated. He started out bitching about the price of the the ride, which turned out to be a surrogate for his money concerns which, as always, turn out to be a surrogate for life concerns.
Complaints about the fare evolved into complaints about being over a million dollars in debt for healthcare.
Chronically sick people don’t have much of a chance in this great country unless they’re well heeled, and he wasn’t. He’s a struggling musician who is too sick to enjoy performing right now, thus missing a good part of the festival. He told me he’d had diverticulitis a while back, and wondered if this wasn’t a flare up. He admitted he’d been out touring with his band, enjoying a very toxic diet, and for the past couple of months had experienced intense pain in his lower abdomen. Said the pain had gotten so bad he can barely move.
He lamented that he had shows lined up for SXSW but couldn’t participate because of it. The doctors can’t tell him what it is. He’s been going in for tests for the past few months, running up his bills, and now they want to order more tests. More money, more uncertainty. More uncertainty, more stress. The tone in the car felt like a cross between a funeral parlor and the bottom of a well, the fear and despair echoing off the walls.
I closed the windows so we could hear each other better and because it felt like the right thing to do. The ride had the feel of a final conversation, almost whispering the way people do at a wake.
I had nothing. I banged my head for something to say that felt “right”, but all I could come up with was, “Jeez, I’m really sorry you’re hurting so much, brother. I really wish there something I could say to make you feel better.” Funny, it was the first time I saw light in his face. Sometimes wisdom isn’t about answers. Compassion is the light upon the leaf of every plant, and when there’s nothing to say, there’s always that.
We drove along in silence for a few minutes. I reflected on all the times I’ve diagnosed myself with terminal illnesses, only to discover I had… allergies. Sometimes my mind likes to put me in my death bed because sometimes it’s just easier to give up. Feeling badly can become a nasty habit. Sometimes claiming life is like lifting weights: it requires effort.
Defeat can pull you down like gravity, dimming your light. Maybe it’s the mind’s way of punishing me for my regrets. Maybe it’s a distorted way of making sense of my mistakes, as if to say, “I’ve messed up so much, I don’t deserve to flourish. I don’t deserve joy, health, and wellness.” To claim that life, I’ve got to exert that effort intentionally. But first I think you’ve got to call out the demon by its name.
So, I asked the man, “In your mind what are you afraid it is?” “Well”, he says, “I have to admit, I’ve been doing a lot of benefits for people lately. A lot of people are dying. Every time I turn around, someone is dying of cancer. So, I don’t know. I. Just. Don’t. Know.”
Sometimes when you want someone to dig a ditch three feet deep, you’ve got to ask them to dig 12 feet, so I tried again, “What does your mind tell you is the worse possible case scenario?”
He comes clean: “ I hate to admit it, but I’m telling myself that maybe I have cancer.”
Yeah. That’s what I thought. And then, “I’ve got to admit, now that I’ve actually said it, it feels better already.”
I know of a program that likes to say, “We’re only as sick as the secrets we keep.” The sickness isn’t in the secret as much as it’s in the keeping. We have to be mindful of what we keep.
I asked him, “Wanna play a little game?”
“Imagine you’re God, and you could make the illness anything you want. You can make it something that that you could actually be okay with. If you could do that, what would it be? “
He thinks for a moment, then says, “Well, honestly it could be just a gas problem. Or maybe my body is just toxic from my diet.”
I disguise a suggestion in the form of a question: “Why don’t you just tell yourself that it’s a gas problem?”
“Good question,” he muses.
“Why not claim health for yourself now? Screw what you’re afraid the doctors are going to say. By the time you find out what it is, it could be months from now. In the meantime you can help your immune system. If you’re going to tell yourself a story, why not a better story? The less you worry, the better you feel, which helps your immune system.” I suggest, “Look, you’ve got to follow doctors orders. But at least until you know what it is, go down to Whole Foods and get a nutritionist. Ask them to put you on a detox to alkalinize your body. While you’re waiting for the results, at least you take steps toward health.”
In shamanic circles, there’s a difference between a “healing” and a “cure.” Sometimes it’s too late for the cure. But never too late for the healing. And sometimes the healing leads to the cure.
As we come to his destination, I shut the app off and turn to face him. “You can claim health for yourself right now, no matter what the heck’s going on. You really don’t have to torture yourself by telling yourself you have a disease that you might not even have. Don’t be so quick to die.”
And then a brightness come back into his face, and for the first time I notice he’s a handsome man. He smiles as he gets out of the car, and reaches in to shake my hand. “Thank you”, he said. “Really. I feel a lot better.”
I watch a 40 year old man walk into life.
*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.
Photo credit: Getty Images